One day I am standing on my hands. The next I am in bed with a heating pad under my back unable to move. It happened, literally, in the flick of a wrist: I folded over my legs in my narrow shower to shave my calves at 7 am and suddenly— spasm, tighten, slump— I’m in a ball on the floor with water pouring down my face and pain rushing up my spine. It wasn’t that moment that did it, though. In truth, it was a culmination of many small and subtle moments, pains physical and psycho-emotional, that led me to injury.
Injury is inherent in all exercise. I injured myself as a basketball player, as a track runner, and now, as a yoga practitioner. The problem is that, as a yogi, I have come to believe I am more educated about fitness and the body than I was before. Therefore, I should be able to prevent injury. While I’ve proven myself wrong countless times, I still beat myself up about getting hurt. It was my fault. I brought this upon myself. I’ll be a burden to everyone. I am useless. Stupid, stupid, stupid. It seems when I get physically injured I punish myself with self-inflicted psychological injuries, too.
This is where yoga comes in. One of my aims in my yoga practice has been to learn how to detach myself from outcomes and results, to separate my self-worth from the consequences of my efforts. For example, I have been trying for at least a year to balance in handstand without success. Every time I failed, a voice in my head used to say things like, “you’re a mediocre yogi” and “you’ll never be a good yoga instructor.” Eventually, I learned to ignore that voice and focus on what truly mattered: not that I could balance in handstand, but that through consistent and focused effort I am making progress and becoming stronger along the way. Yoga has taught me that I am greater than the faults and fumbles of my body.
Still, it is hard to ignore the voice that says “your body has betrayed you” and “you’re never going to recover” when you’re sitting on the floor of your shower with only half of your calf shaved and a sharp pain shooting through your back. It is in that moment that I had to do what yoga reteaches me everyday: breathe deeply, move carefully, and listen to my body. My yoga practice has proven to me that my bones and muscles are always wiser than my ego. Even when it is crippling me with pain, my body knows best. The hard part is decoding the messages the body is sending.
I think of the body as a vessel, not just of my blood, bones, and flesh, but of my stress, fears, insecurities, efforts, and achievements. It carries physical, psychological, and emotional burdens. It also expresses feelings of joy, pride, sadness, and fear, often without my knowledge. So now, as it screams to me, my task is to hear its message, and—here’s the tricky part—respond. Because I’ve been here before, I know that my body is begging me to slow down, to take care of myself, and to practice moderation. I know this in my heart. It’s my ego that doesn’t want to hear it.
Convincing my ego that my value and success will not be diminished by self-care requires taking a long-term approach to achievement. If my ultimate goal is to balance in handstand before I’m 23, well then breaking my back (not merely metaphorically, it seems) is well worth it. But if my goal is to prolong the longevity of my body, my yoga practice, and my life, then taking time to care for myself is not a setback, but fuel forward. What’s more is that learning to positively respond to the needs and limitations of my body is part of the practice. I am human; my body is fallible. My self-worth is not diminished by my physical flaws. I can allow my body to rest, and in doing so, give love and care to my body, mind, and heart.
Although I won’t be getting back to my normal practice this week or even the next, I will be practicing something. As I have heard my teachers say time and time again, this practice is, for many, the hardest practice of all: Rest.